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Depression, schizophrenia, autism and other psychiatric disorders show common genetic link
A new study of over 700 human brains has shown a genetic "signature" for common psychiatric disorders.
In his book The Gene, journalist and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee borrows Richard Dawkins’s description of genes not as 'blueprints' but 'recipes' that specify processes inside of our bodies, calling them 'formula for forms.' Our understanding of disease must now consider the most elementary of molecules, he continues. In order to wrap our heads around the nature of disease, scientists "must break the world into its constituent parts—genes, atoms, bytes—before making it whole again."
One of our great strengths as humans is our ability to recognize patterns, to break down the whole into its parts to better understand how it became whole in the first place. In medicine, this has led to errant diagnoses like when the Greek physician Hippocrates identified the four humors—the notion that all disease stems from one of four bodily fluids (though in fairness, autopsies were taboo when the Greek physician lived). While some patterns are highly speculative, we’re getting better at recognizing ones that matter.
A groundbreaking study recently published in the journal, Science, has discovered patterns of genetic activity that overlap with five major psychiatric disorders: alcoholism, autism, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. This revelation could help researchers develop potential treatments for each of these diseases. For the first time, it also provides a physical basis for some of our most common disorders.
Analyzing data from the postmortem brain tissue of over seven hundred human brains, researchers found similar levels of certain molecules in those suffering from autism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Further analysis found links between bipolar and depression, as well as depression and autism.
Network analysis identifies modules of coexpressed genes across disease. (Science)
The conditions show activation of astrocytes, star-shaped glial cells in the brain and spinal cord. Among their many functions, these cells provide biochemical support to the cells that help form the blood-brain barrier, provide nutrients to nervous tissue, and play a role in the repair and scarring of the brain and spinal cord after traumatic injuries. The 'signatures' researchers discovered in this study affect how brains cells communicate with one another.
Many disorders have physical characteristics that help define the problem. This has not been the case with psychiatric disorders. By identifying the gene expression of the above disorders, this new research could help create a physical checklist for doctors to use in future diagnoses.
Lead author Daniel Geschwind, a neurogeneticist at UCLA, says:
“We’re on the threshold to using genomics and molecular technology to look at [mental illness] in a way we’ve never been able to do before. Psychiatric disorders have no obvious pathology in the brain, but now we have the genomic tools to ask what actually goes awry in these brains.”
The researchers mention limitations in the study. Genetic variation, they write, is only one driver of expression variation. Environmental factors must be taken into consideration. But they did take precautions in their assessment. To counter against antipsychotic medication the volunteers might have been on before they died, the researchers gave PCP to nonhuman primates to evoke psychosis, then treated them with antipsychotic meds to observe the genetic activity.
Geschwind compares this research with genetic breakthroughs occurring in cancer studies. He calls this study a 'road map' to help in discovering the underlying mechanisms at the foundation of these seemingly disparate disorders. Instead of diagnosing patients on observation alone, for example, genetic testing could offer more precise analyses of potential conditions and treatments in the future.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion and creator of Clarity: Anxiety Reduction for Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"</p><p>Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2010.483632" target="_blank">8.2 feet long</a>.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a <em>Triceratops prorsus, </em>one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.</p>
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p>The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the T<em>yrannosaurus rex</em>. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">headlines</a> after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.</p><p>Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">New York Times</a>.</p>
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.